Saturday, May 22, 2010

Obama vs. Carville vs. BP vs. Me.

I saw this on the Huffington Post this morning, and since I generally find James Carville about as pleasant as an ingrown hair, I wanted to offer a few comments on some of his comments about President Obama.

Carville, a Louisiana political commentator who was an advisor to the Clinton presidency, has blasted the president for a “lackadaisical and na├»ve” approach to the Deepwater Horizon disaster that killed eleven men, has shut down one of the nation’s largest fisheries, and threatens to ruin the ecology of the Gulf of Mexico.

Whatever any of their other shortcomings may be, neither the President nor the federal government should be held responsible for what has happened to date, because up to this point (and probably continuing for the near future) the federal government has not been in charge of the situation-- BP has, because BP created the mess in the first place.

The federal government became involved for two reasons. First, certain federal agencies, such as the Coast Guard, have jurisdiction over environmental disasters that occur in the waters of the United States. This, I should point out, in no way excuses Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen for his practice of simply parroting whatever BP says. The second reason is that the sheer scale of the disaster has made it into a problem for the entire region.

Fox News and other right-wing news outlets have given a great deal of attention to the concept of the Deepwater Horizon being “Obama’s Katrina,” a reference to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina which devastated the Gulf coast, rendered the city of New Orleans uninhabitable, and revealed the egregious and criminal incompetence of the Bush administration in so plain a fashion that it probably cost the Republican party the 2006 midterm elections as well as the 2008 elections. “Heckuva job, Brownie.”

The essential difference between Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon disaster is, of course, that the oil spill is manmade. More to the point, it is the result of man’s—whether BP, Transocean, or Halliburton is moot—negligence and complacency. The particular “men” involved are the private sector, not the government. This isn’t Obama’s Katrina, this is the oil industry’s Katrina.

Over the past month, since the explosion and fire which sank the Deepwater Horizon occurred, BP has continuously downplayed and obfuscated details of the magnitude of the spill, such that the quantity of oil and gas released per day is now known to be an order of magnitude larger than BP’s initial estimates. There is no excuse for that—any engineer could calculate the daily volume of oil simply by looking at the size of the pipe and the rate the oil was exiting it, which is child’s play when you have a camera-equipped robot staring right at the blown-out well. BP didn’t release footage of their observations of the well until three weeks after the blowout and fire, but even so it was plain even from just what was visible on the water’ surface that BP’s estimates were bogus.

Investigations and whistle-blowing have also revealed that much of the drill rig’s safety equipment didn’t work, and that BP and its contractors skipped important tests that would likely have warned of the impending disaster. That may sound like Monday-morning quarterbacking, but there is a very good reason that safety equipment and well logging are standard practices in the oil drilling industry—they prevent disasters and save lives. Likewise, there is no excuse for BP not having proven contingency measures ready to go, so that they would not have to resort to trying one bit of oilpatch jargon (“junk shot,” “top kill,” etc) after another, only to watch them fail because the water is too deep or the blowout too intense. Even relatively simple things required by BP’s permit, like as-built blueprints or having barges laden with spill booms and crews trained to lay them properly, turned out to be deficient or missing entirely.

The federal government’s error, as evidence has shown, lay in taking BP at its word, trusting the oil company to do (and to be able to do) what it said it would do. BP signed the lease for the oilfield, took out the permit, claimed it could drill safely, said it had contingency plans if anything were to go wrong, and assumed the responsibility for handling leaks or spills. Bear in mind, however, that BP arguably has the worst safety record of any major petroleum company in the United States—in just the last five years, it has had several major spills, one refinery explosion in 2005, and another refinery shut down out of safety and pollution concerns. Exxon was responsible for the Prince William Sound disaster, it is true, but at least Exxon learned from the experience and, for whatever its other faults, now at least walks the walk on safety and emergency preparedness issues.

It is not now, and has never been, the role of the federal government to hover over every well, refinery, pipeline, or filling station, or to immediately jump on every oil spill. The federal government is not a first-responder service. The government’s job is to set a standard of care (in the form of statute and regulations) that is intended to keep manmade disasters to a minimum, and the private sector is supposed to obey the regulations. Regulations are not in force only when the MMS or EPA inspector is onboard the rig—they are in force all the time, and drillers must obey them all the time. Blaming the government for BP’s failures and negligence is akin to the man who built a house badly, only to have it fall down, blaming the building inspector for not forcing him to build a better house.

None of this bears directly on the President—he is, after all, the President, and not a BP engineer or an EPA spill-response coordinator. While the spill has turned into a major regional disaster, the cleanup mechanisms are several dozen pay grades below the Oval Office. If Carville wants to vent his spleen at anyone, I would suggest BP, the Minerals Management Service, the Bush Administration (who authorized the drilling), or perhaps the Coast Guard. He should remember, however, that the sins of these various government agencies consist in that they trusted BP too much, and that the ultimate fault therefore devolves on BP.

BP doubtless has its own motivations here—to restore the immense damage to its reputation, which has turned the company into a pop culture laughingstock, and to save money by stopping the release in the most expeditious way possible. Some of these motivations are, at best, tangential to the desires of the government and the public, who want the spill cleaned up, the environment restored, and the fishermen and others whose livelihoods have been disrupted to be compensated. BP, meanwhile, wrote a blank check to its Gulf-area franchises and subsidiaries to deluge the media with advertising, ostensibly on behalf of gulf states’ tourism boards, advertising open beaches and fresh seafood.

It’s the very old story. Greg Palast recently summed it up thusly:

Americans want government off our backs ... that is, until a folding crib crushes the skull of our baby, Toyota accelerators speed us to our death, banks blow our savings on gambling sprees and crude oil smothers the Mississippi. Then, suddenly, it's, "Where was hell was the government? Why didn't the government do something to stop it?”

In short, the federal government has to take over because the private sector failed…….. again. That should be quite clear by now, at least to anyone short of Rush Limbaugh or Rand Paul—the former has alleged that environmentalists blew the oil rig up, and the latter has, in a spate of fundamentalist libertarianism, called Obama’s supposedly harsh approach to BP’s actions “un-American” for assaulting a corporation that plays a big part in the American economy.

In one sense I agree with Rand Paul’s extreme syndicalist outlook—certainly not one unreimbursed cent of public money should be spent on cleaning up a spill caused by a private sector operation which was engaged in exploiting for profit resources owned by the public.

I wonder…. If you give people enough rope, they can proverbially hang themselves with it. Does the same apply to giving BP enough boom?

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